Learning to Make My Way in a Wider World

I didn’t plan on getting a job during my study program in Paris, but due to a bizarre bank mix-up, my funds ended up trapped in my account and I was forced to improvise.

At the time I was staying at a hotel where I had run up a rather lengthy bill, and when I explained the situation, the concierge – who also served as the bartender and porter – offered a solution. She had become overwhelmed by her duties at the hotel, and was increasingly forced to neglect a twice-daily tour she usually led of Montmartre. If I would take over her duties as tour guide, she would let the bill slide and even give me a few euros on top.

There didn’t seem to be any other option, so I accepted.

There was just one rub – I didn’t really know Paris all that well. I’d only been there for a month at that point, and while I could get around alright, explaining the historical significance of this and that landmark to a troupe of tourists felt a bit beyond my abilities. But when one’s back is against the wall, you either befriend the claustrophobia and make it work for you, or you end up crushed.

I started that very day, and I’ll tell you, that first tour was rocky indeed.

Before I struck out with my gaggle of tour-goers, the concierge asked me if I remembered the route. I answered in the affirmative, having tagged along a number of times in the past, but really, I wasn’t too sure.

We began at the Pigalle neighborhood, where I cruised my flock by tourist hotspots like the Moulin Rouge and the little café from the film Amalie. Then it was up the hill to the Sacre Coeur cathedral, then around to its rear where all of the artists are set up painting portraits and landscapes and caricatures.

Everything was going fine at this point, but as we descended down the residential side of the hill, things started to unravel.

The problem was that, while they’re all beautiful, all of the streets tend to look the same. I realized at some point that we were far off the tour route, but my followers expected to see certain things, so I had to deliver.

I pointed enthusiastically at an older-looking building and told them that Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo had once lived there. And over there – that’s where the Prussians had positioned their cannons when they attacked the city. What’s that majestic looking building, you ask? Napoleon had it built…for his mistresses.

An accented voice – Swedish, it turned out – spoke up. “That’s not right.”

I turned to the offender, a tall, skinny blonde fellow of roughly my same age. “What do you mean?”

“That’s a new building, built just a few years ago. It just looks old. In fact, I’m pretty sure that much of what you have said is wrong.”

“Hey, who’s the tour guide here? What do you know about it?”

As it turned out, he was an architecture student and something of an expert on Parisian history. Suffice to say that the tour was pretty much finished on the spot.

Back at the hotel, the Swede – Bjorn, he was called – apologized and bought me a beer.

“No, you’re right,” I told him. “I made the whole thing up.”

The next day Bjorn and I struck out into Montmartre in the morning. He showed me where Van Gogh’s house can actually be found. He explained the history of the cathedral and took me around to a number of famous statues. We went by Lapin Agile, where Picasso and other artists used to go for a cheap meal.

Bjorn left a few days later, and I continued to lead my increasingly-accurate tours.

I keep in touch with him to this day, and often contact him if I need to verify some historical tidbit. And he regularly sends me his articles on architecture for editing before he submits them for publication.

This is one of countless experiences I encountered during my time abroad, and look at its result – a good story, an improved knowledge of the city and history in general, and a lifelong colleague and friend.

To this day I ask myself, how much would I have missed had I decided to take the easy route and stay home?

author: Nick H. @ CT